Inquiry call over fire authority spending

Coun Jim Andrews
Coun Jim Andrews
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A LIBERAL Democrat peer has called for an investigation after it emerged public money had been used to pay for a senior councillor to attend a Labour Party conference in Brighton.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed more than £600 was spent on the south coast trip by South Yorkshire Fire Authority chairman Jim Andrews, who is also Labour deputy leader of Barnsley Council.

Lord Scriven, former leader of Sheffield Council, has written to the authority’s external auditor, KPMG, asking for an investigation into the legality of the fire authority’s use of public money - some of which went directly to the Labour Party to pay the conference fee.

The authority said Coun Andrews attendance at the conference in September 2013 was not in his capacity as a Labour councillor and insisted he was instead representing a group of fire authorities who were lobbying the party over funding cuts. A spokesman also said the trip was an opportunity to lobby South Yorkshire MPs in particular.

The authority declined to clarify why Coun Andrews only attended his own party’s conference in a lobbying capacity when Labour were not in government. It also declined to clarify why lobbying of local MPs would need to take place in Brighton.

Lord Scriven linked questions about the conference payment to the recent controversy over ‘secret’ payments made to chief fire officers for working during industrial action between September 2013 and February 2015.

In February, Coun Andrews said he would stand down as chairman at the May local elections in the wake of the furore surrounding his decision to approve more than £42,000 in overtime payments to chief officers for working during strikes, without reporting the deal to the fire authority.

A subsequent internal audit inquiry concluded the payments were lawful but led to an agreement chief officers would repay the money.

Lord Scriven, who is a Lib Dem candidate in the Sheffield Council elections, said: “A pattern is emerging at the Fire Authority when it comes to senior people and payments. It is time now for KPMG and their external auditor to get under the legality of this payment and the previous payments to senior managers during the recent strike.”

The bill for the trip to Brighton came to £637. He stayed two nights in a hotel and the costs included a £125 conference fee.

A fire authority spokesman said: “The chairman attended in his position as chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Fire and Rescue Authorities (AMFRA) because fire authorities were getting a rough deal from government. He needed to make that point to South Yorkshire MPs in particular.”

He added the authority does not fund general attendance at party conferences and later said Coun Andrews had spoken to MPs other than those from South Yorkshire. The authority did not receive a formal report back from the conference from Coun Andrews but the spokesman said members were kept briefed, including on a report AMFRA presented to the Government. Coun Andrews did not respond to a request to comment.